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Trauma felt across generations

A reader wonders if past scars can linger down the years.

QUESTION:

Is it possible for a person to feel traumatised by events in a previous generation?

I’ve heard about intergenerational trauma impacting on generations following the Holocaust, and I’m curious about how much credence this theory has for successive generations of trauma sufferers.

ANSWER:

The impact of events such as war and genocide have a long tail-off effect that is felt by the next generation. This impact is transmitted in several ways.

Firstly, it is self-evident that people who have lost family members and suffered greatly themselves will parent in a different manner. Their behaviour can fluctuate from being overprotective to critical of the growing child if he or she complains of hardship that means little to those who have survived a concentration camp. Hence the survivor can be both fearful for the future of their child but also diminishing about their complaints about the slings and arrows of normal childhood.

There is also evidence about how the dysregulation of the mother’s biology, particularly the stress hormone systems, can be passed onto the child through this parenting style.

The scars of the parents can be visited on the children in unknowing ways. The children can respond in various ways including avoiding having children because of the burden of responsibility that lies in being the progeny of a survivor.

However, this is not ubiquitous. Clearly other children are motivated in many ways by their knowledge of their parents’ experience and can live lives that are motivated to invest in the good of the broader society to try and prevent a recurrence of the world that traumatised their parents.

Our knowledge comes from studies of the children of Holocaust survivors and war veterans. We only know about one generation. The rest would be speculation.

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